U. S. Congress Approves Reauthorization of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Actions Could Benefit Persecuted Christians Overseas


Oppressed Christians and other religious adherents around the world stand to benefit from recent actions by the United States government.

The House of Representatives approved reauthorization of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in a voice vote Oct. 6. The Senate passed the same legislation without opposition Sept. 30. The measure, awaiting President Obama’s signature, will extend the authority of a bipartisan panel that serves as a watchdog on global religious liberty conditions.

Congressional action to renew USCIRF’s mission came shortly after Obama selected one of the commission’s own staffers as the first special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia. David Saperstein, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, announced the appointment of Knox Thames to the new post Sept. 16. Thames, formerly USCIRF’s director of policy and research, began work in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom Sept. 28.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), applauded both developments.

He expressed gratitude Congress “acted in the best interest of Americans and millions of other people around the world by reauthorizing [USCIRF], which plays a crucial role in standing up for soul freedom against tyranny around the world.”

In written comments for Baptist Press, Moore described Thames as “an excellent choice to serve as a special advisor for religious minorities in some of the most oppressive regions in the world. His stalwart commitment to religious freedom and years of experience both on the field and in crafting policy will help play a crucial part in defending religious freedom in countries where there might otherwise be little or no advocacy for it.”

The road to congressional reauthorization of USCIRF proved rocky. The international religious freedom community supported bills sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, R.-Fla., and Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., that would not only have renewed USCIRF’s authority but strengthened it. The Rubio and Smith measures included provisions calling for expanding the designation of severe violators of religious liberty to include non-government, terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Near East and Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Congress finally approved a compromise but one that accomplished its main purpose — keeping USCIRF’s doors open. It appeared in late September the commission might have to shut down, at least temporarily. Its authorization was to end Sept. 30, but Congress managed to extend USCIRF’s life by including it in a continuing resolution to keep the federal government operating. A continuing resolution is a short-term funding measure.

The newly approved reauthorization is for four years, a fact Rubio highlighted after the Senate vote. The four-year authorization will enable USCIRF “to focus, without distraction, on their critical mandate at precisely the time it’s most needed,” he said in a written statement.

“Attacks on houses of worship, imprisonment and even death are daily realities for people of faith around the world,” Rubio said. “This is especially true for religious minorities in the Middle East who are facing a genocidal onslaught.

USCIRF “has been a steadfast champion of this ‘first freedom’ and a reliable voice for the oppressed and marginalized,” he said.

Moore commended Rubio’s efforts, saying USCIRF reauthorization “would never have been possible if not for the longstanding and valiant leadership” of the senator.

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SOURCE: Baptist Press
Tom Strode